Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Trojan Horse of protectionism Federal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE is quietly influencing the presidential race, even with Sen. Bernie Sanders emerging as the primary liberal foil to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
The Massachusetts Democrat, who shunned loud calls for her to mount a White House bid, has largely seen the national spotlight shift to Sanders (I-Vt.), whose campaign won backing from the Ready for Warren diehards and whose stump speeches have drawn massive crowds across the country.
Still, Warren is picking her spots, as she looks to shape debates taking place both on the campaign trail and in Congress.
“Elizabeth Warren has the unique ability, especially for a non-presidential candidate, to put an issue on the map,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org — one of the groups behind a separate Run Warren Run campaign that ended in June.
“When Warren stakes out a progressive position on a major issue, it becomes a topic that candidates on both sides of the aisle have to answer to,” he said. There is an “invisible line” in Washington between ideas that seem practical and those that are not, and Warren can help to “move that line,” he added.
Last week in Washington, Warren gave a speech on corporate tax policy, arguing that large companies don't pay their fair share and laying out a series of principle guidelines for legislation to reform the system.
Earlier this month, she joined with Sanders to introduce legislation that would give social security recipients a one-time $580 boost and pay for the hike by ending a tax break that allows companies to deduct a portion of their executive salaries that's performance-based.
Warren’s focus on tax policy comes as the issue is heating up in the GOP presidential primary battle, and as Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — who championed tax reform as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — begins his tenure as Speaker.
It also comes as Sanders appears to have lost a measure of momentum in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with the presidential campaigns, said he thinks Warren is trying to fill a void that’s caused by Hillary Clinton’s substantial lead in the polls for the Democratic nomination for president.
“I think she sees Bernie Sanders faltering,” he said, adding that Warren wants to make sure “she can shape the forum of the campaign.”
But Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, another group behind the Run Warren Run campaign, said he doesn’t think the timing of the speech related to a sense that Sanders is faltering.
Sroka and other Warren supporters contend that her comments on corporate taxes reflect the current view of most Americans.
Her message hits at “a very American notion of fairness,” Sroka said.
A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted earlier this month found that 63 percent of adults favored increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and large corporations to help reduce income inequality. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Independents favored the tax hikes.
A Sanders spokesman said the senators are good friends, who’ve worked together on issues since Warren was a Harvard professor.
Others suggest Warren’s recent tax speech was aimed, at least in part, at fellow Democrats.
Warren’s position on corporate tax reform differs from that of President Obama as well as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the Senate Democrats looking to strike a reform deal with Republicans.
They have signaled support for “deemed repatriation” of earnings held overseas at a discounted rate — a concept Warren criticized.
Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said that Warren’s speech was a shot at Obama and Schumer, warning them if they work with Republicans on rate-lowering corporate-tax reform, there will be some backlash.
“I think this is mostly about internal Senate politics more than it is about presidential politics,” he said.
Whatever her motivation, Warren has repeatedly proven able to elevate issues.
“Warren continues to put important issues on the agenda, like debt-free college, which was a key topic in the last Democratic debate,” said Holly Shulman, a former Democratic National Committee official unaffiliated with the presidential campaigns.
Warren has also spoken out about the need for stronger Wall Street regulations, a frequent topic in the debates.
The same day that she gave the speech on corporate taxes, she joined the Economic Policy Institute at the release of the group's 12-point women's economic agenda. She also gave a speech on the Senate floor last week on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Warren and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) recently sent a letter to Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Jo White asking for information on the performance of the SEC's whistleblower office. And she and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released new findings about the risks posed to taxpayers and the economy after a partial repeal of a Dodd-Frank provision was enacted last year.
Warren’s backers are saying her message resonates with her party’s base, and urge other candidates to follow her lead.
“Even in states like New Hampshire that are known for being anti-tax, Granite Staters overwhelmingly and bipartisanly want to see the wealthy pay more and the middle class pay less,” Shulman said. “And that's what Democrats believe too.”
Bannon said Democrats have a good chance of retaining the White House, particularly if they focus on those themes.
“To me, Elizabeth Warren is synonymous with economic populism,” he said.